Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad is now available in paperback, as well as in Spanish, Portuguese and French editions.
Order a copy from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound or iBookstore
For news & events follow on Twitter or Facebook.
"Aptly titled, and written with verve, humor and constant energy, Difficult Men is as gripping as an episode of The Sopranos or Homeland. Any addict of the new 'golden' television (or extended narratives on premium cable) will love this book. Along the way, it is also one ...
Jeff Bridges: Man of the Year, 2010
The Dude abides my questioning. GQ, December 2010
01.24.11 | category: GQ, profiles |
Guns, magic and Disneyland with Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic star. GQ, January 2011
01.23.11 | category: GQ, profiles |
Gross Prophets: A Comedy Directors’ Roundtable
Hanging with Funny Boys: John Landis, Adam McKay, Judd Apatow, Edgar Wright and Todd Philips. GQ, August 2010
01.22.11 | category: GQ, profiles |
John Hamm: Man of the Year, 2008
Where Don Draper came from and how he got here. GQ, December 2008
01.21.11 | category: GQ, profiles |
Harold Ramis Gets the Last Laugh
A Q&A ...
Jackie Robinson’s son David and his remarkable journey to running a coffee plantation in Africa. Vanity Fair, May 2005
01.30.11 | category: Vanity Fair, features |
Say “I Do” to Rock
Travels with the World’s Greatest Rock-n-Roll (Wedding) Band New York Times, October 2009
01.30.11 | category: New York Times, features |
The strange tale of the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club. Vanity Fair, February 2004
01.30.11 | category: Vanity Fair, features |
First a Hook, Then Ink: An Artist’s Catch
The gastro-artistic circle of life, on the South Fork. New York Times, August 2007
01.30.11 | category: New York ...
New Orleans Gets Its Bite Back
Assessing the Crescent City’s comeback, three years after Katrina. GQ, September 2008
01.31.11 | category: food, GQ |
The FedEx Meal Plan
On having all one’s food overnighted from faraway lands. Or, A push-back to the local/seasonal orthodoxy.
GQ, November 2009
01.31.11 | category: GQ, food |
Tahiti: A Viticultural Odyssey
One man’s obsession with making wine in the South Pacific.
Gourmet, February 2009
01.29.11 | category: Gourmet, food |
Haggis, Updated: Less Offal, Tastes Great
The state of Scotland’s most famous, and reviled, ...
Kuala Lumpur: Street Food Heaven
Gastronomic adventures on the streets of Malaysia’s capital. Bon Appetit, May 2008
01.31.11 | category: Bon Appetit, travel |
Come to L.A. for…the Food?
Los Angeles finally gets its serious-dining props. GQ, March 2008
01.31.11 | category: GQ, travel |
Portland, OR: America’s Newest—and Gutsiest—Food City
Pork, cocktails and strippers in Stumptown. GQ, May 2009
01.31.11 | category: GQ, travel |
New Orleans Gets Its Bite Back
Assessing the Crescent City’s comeback, three years after Katrina. GQ, September 2008
01.31.11 | category: GQ, travel |
The Quest: See a bald eagle, a bear, a whale and a salmon. In ...
This American Life
You can listen to my This American Life here, or via a variety of modern techniques at their website.
On one man's struggle to deal with his mother's murder.
(Episode: How to Rest in Peace; 32 min)
On a disastrous boat trip in Brooklyn.
(Episode: In The Shadow of the City; 22 min)
On crying on airplanes.
(Episode: Put Your Heart In It; 11 min)
On creating a religion using focus groups.
(Episode: A Better Mousetrap; 11 min)
IN TV, AS NOWHERE ELSE, the writer is king—none more so than those emperors of the air that control every aspect of an ambitious, ongoing cable drama. The show-runner is this era’s version of the Creative Titan, and few have done more with the power than the three GQ recently convened in the Olympian heights of a room at the Soho House in West Hollywood, to talk deeply about their craft.
The men speak in voices as different as their shows: Matthew Weiner, the man behind Mad Men, is a high-speed stream of sparkling copy; Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad, has the straightforward, gracious drawl of a geeky southern gentleman; and David Milch—who wrote Deadwood, the misbegotten John from Cincinnati, and Luck, which met an equally early end this spring after the deaths of three equine cast members—has the baroque gnomic gravity of an archdruid. But each of these giants expresses, in his distinct way, just how ambitious and deep the new breed of TV drama has grown.
···GQ: I think we’ve all gotten used to the idea that television has evolved into its own distinct art form over the past ten years or so, rather than just movies on a small screen.
Seeing movie people trying to get into TV now who don’t understand that is very interesting.
GQ: What’s the mistake they make?
Matthew Weiner: It’s a different genre. It’s literally comparing a short story to a poem. Or a play.
GQ: Nowadays nobody would struggle with feeling inferior for working in television instead of movies, the way someone like The Sopranos‘ David Chase once did, right?
Matthew Weiner: Oh, there’s still a hierarchy. Forgetting about remuneration and public adulation, there’s still a hierarchy in terms of the writer’s Olympic Dream. I have to warn you, journalism won’t be on this list.
GQ: Thank you for that.
Matthew Weiner: It would start with poetry, then go theater, novel, then film, and then TV, then maybe radio.
GQ: Why is that still true, when it’s obvious that some of the best work is being done on TV?
Vince Gilligan: It takes time. It started out when movies were the movies and TV was this bastard stepchild.
David Milch: The symbol retains its hold long after the substance which the symbol is supposed to represent has lost its real basis. Look. [pulls a stack of scratch-off lottery tickets from his pocket] I just stopped and got gas, so, like an idiot, I bought a bunch of scratch-offs.
[He distributes the tickets. Feverish scratching ensues and continues throughout lunch.]
Matthew Weiner: If we win, what happens?
David Milch: You keep the money. Please do. What I’m trying to illustrate is that none of us, thank goodness, needs $10. And yet we willingly submit to the hold the symbol has on us, associated with luck. In the same way, the mystique of the film writer holds long after the substance—in which films were a more powerful medium. That’s not true anymore, but the symbol still has its own autonomous reality.
Matthew Weiner: Part of it is just about scarcity. You can see Jon Hamm thirteen times a year, and you can see Brad Pitt twice. That in itself creates a magic and a hierarchy.
GQ: And yet, Vince, you’ve said that Breaking Bad instantly came to you as a TV show, not as a movie.
Vince Gilligan: Well, if it had been the 1970s, absolutely it would have been a movie, and I would have had to forgo a lot of fun story, because I would have had to fit it all in two hours. That’s the first question: Is this two hours’ worth of story or a hundred hours’ worth of story? And in all honesty, I’ve written movies that have been made, and the process has not been as satisfying as writing for television.
GQ: Clearly a lot of writers—and actors and directors and so on—have come to realize that.
Matthew Weiner: Who knows where the talent goes? Sometimes it goes where the money is. Sometimes I think writers are really interested in the glory.
GQ: And the glory’s in TV right now?
Vince Gilligan: It seems like it.
Matthew Weiner: All I know is that at one point they added the word television to USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Vince Gilligan: Holding their nose.
Matthew Weiner: I’m sure someday they’ll add the word computer too.
Vince Gilligan: But let’s leave aside for a second the idea of glory. TV is where writers get to tell interesting stories right now.
Matthew Weiner: Without interference.
Vince Gilligan: Because writers, for the most part, run television.
GQ: One unique thing is that you’re creating worlds without a clear ending. Ideally the story goes on and on and on….
Vince Gilligan: Endings are the hardest part. I find there’s a great relief that at the end of every episode, every hour of TV you produce, while you want a proper and satisfying ending, it doesn’t have to end The Story, in capital letters.
Matthew Weiner: And that automatically makes it more real. Because in the end, there’s things that are hanging, the way they are in real life. And your audience, you’re actually whetting their appetite for more.
GQ: So do you go into each season laying a certain amount of groundwork, in case it does get renewed?
Matthew Weiner: The first season, I used everything that I had. I’d been thinking about it for six years. I used every song I wanted to put in that show. I used every story line. The only thing I knew that I didn’t use is that there was another Mrs. Draper. I knew that the real Don Draper’s widow was part of the story and that she was in California. That and the fact that Don’s wife, Betty, didn’t know who he really was. That’s all I had left.
GQ: So when you had to do season two, were you terrified?
Matthew Weiner: Yeah! It’s terrifying when you have to do episode two! You think you’ve used it up! Yes, it was terrifying. And then when season two was over and I didn’t know if it was gonna get renewed, I thought, “This could be a relief, because I don’t really have anything.”
David Milch: Hospitality to the theme of change—to change as a theme, not necessarily to change as the organizing principle of the storytelling—must be present if the show is to continue to develop. Change as a theme. And for work that seems so disparate, if you think about it, there is exactly that similarity.
Matthew Weiner: And that’s part of what changed in TV, by the way: Guess what, you don’t know who the show’s gonna be about this week. You don’t know who’s gonna die and disappear this week, even if you love them. We are not giving you a formula. I watched the first season of The Sopranos as a viewer, and you literally felt like you were being dropped out of an airplane every episode. You constantly had the sensation that you had missed an episode. “Everybody in the story seems to know that guy! Do I know that guy? Was he on?” No, they just act like they know that guy, because they have a life that’s without you. Right? When Betty and Don got divorced, I did it in between seasons. We came back and saw them living in different houses and that she was remarried. Viewers still did not believe that she was divorced, because how could you do that with your show? You can’t just—that’s the show! Is she not gonna be in it anymore? Now it’s the viewers’ problem if they don’t know what’s going on. And all of a sudden, a world has opened up to us as writers.
GQ: Do you enjoy the physical side of your jobs—actually filming the show?
Vince Gilligan: It’s wonderful. It’s more fun than writing. Anything is. Writing is like getting hit in the head repeatedly with a mallet. For me, anyway. I love having written. You feel good when you have that fifty-page script. I don’t know from personal experience, but it’s like childbirth: You forget the pain, and then you’re ready to do it again.
Matthew Weiner: To have your work shot—it’s an experience that nobody else gets to know. As opposed to piling up scripts, trying to sell a story, getting notes, and then hoping the execution will happen at all, let alone well. It would be like being an architect and never getting a building built. Everyone here—we’re drawing plans, and then we build the building.
Vince Gilligan: I always loved stories of the studio system back in the ’40s and ’50s, where you’d have writers in their individual offices, this one working on a Humphrey Bogart movie, this one doing something else.
David Milch: Isn’t that nice to think about?
Vince Gilligan: And your movies would get made. Now there’s a kind of hang-fire misery involved in living the life of a screenwriter in which you get paid a lot of money, you can write your movie in the South of France or wherever the hell you wish to work, but it’s very likely your blueprints will never be made into a building. With TV, you write something, and a week or two later it’s being produced.
Matthew Weiner: Screenwriting is not our end product. I walk on set and I see the person I cast, and the costumes I went to the meeting for, and the hair, and somebody’s done something amazing with the set. All these people’s creative input comes into it.
David Milch: That’s the extraordinary part. How much you learn, how quickly. It’s like this in-gush of information that modifies your original idea. It’s so precious.
GQ: You must have had to learn to work in a different way on Luck, since you and [fellow executive producer] Michael Mann agreed you wouldn’t be on the set.
David Milch: Yeah, it’s been absolutely new. It’s involved the postponement of that learning experience.
Matthew Weiner: I can’t even imagine what it’s like to just go and see it thrown at you.
Vince Gilligan: That’s what it’s like to write movies. You write it, and then maybe you get invited to the premiere, maybe you don’t.
GQ: Was it very awful?
David Milch: No, not awful. Absolutely different. When I was working on Deadwood, it was understood that the script was a work in progress and when we got to set everyone would kind of work on it together. This was completely different, with a different result. But there are compensations for that. Learning to live with the given is the great humbling educational process of life. And I’ve had a sufficiency of education this past year.
GQ: You all approach the necessity of collaborating with other writers in different ways. Can you talk about your approach to the writers’ room?
Matthew Weiner: We all came up in this system. There is something about it that’s very old and exactly the same as it’s always been. When I watch The Dick Van Dyke Show, I’m like, Wow, this is the same job. There’s the 12-year-old kid on the staff. There’s the guy who delivers lunch. I guarantee you I can walk into either of these guys’ offices and, except for where the snack room is, it’s gonna be similar on some level.
GQ: There will be snacks, though.
Matthew Weiner: I think that’s a WGA thing. There has to be a lot of food. We have “fifteen-minute meal leave.” If you haven’t eaten for fifteen minutes, you have to. Oh, my God, the lunch menu, like, meets you when you’re walking in the door. You’re making breakfast and they’re asking you what you want for lunch. But I had a really good writers’ room this year. There are other times when you dread going into that room. You’re literally, like in a movie, outside the door taking a deep breath before you walk in. And it’s not them. It’s not the human beings. Sometimes you’re just distracted by bullshit.
David Milch: You bring the atmosphere with you.
Matthew Weiner: Yes, that’s totally true.
GQ: What do you mean by that?
David Milch: Well, the best situation of all is to come clean in the writers’ room and discover, through your encounter with your fellow writers, the nature and rhythms of the story that you’re trying to tell. But if you bring with you resentments or anxieties, you tend to project and corrupt those natural rhythms, and you wind up with some very strange hybrid forms.
Matthew Weiner: And by the way, having been on the other side of it, I actually think that part of my success climbing the hierarchy of the writers’ room was that I knew that when the boss came in, no matter what mood they were in, I was not going to take it personally. I’d be like, “Okay, okay, you don’t like that? Well, I’ve got something else. Did you actually say ‘Fuck you’ to me? Okay. Well, you don’t mean it.”
David Milch: That’s a gift. How did you develop that?
Matthew Weiner: That’s the way my family is. You can’t take it personally.
GQ: Does that mean you have license to say “Fuck you” to your writers in the room?
Matthew Weiner: No! I am not that person. I’m the time-wasting show-runner. I will walk in and say, “I’m sorry, I just got off the phone with blank and blank, and they want this, and blank wants this, and blank wants this…” And they’re all sort of sitting there like, “We were talking about Peggy.” And I’m like, “Yeah, okay…maybe we can use this for Peggy!” You’re just hiding the fact that you just want to vent.
GQ: Given all the time in the world, would you choose to work this way on your shows, or would you prefer to write everything yourself?
David Milch: That’s a good one. All the time in the world? The “B” answer is, I’d write it all myself. Which is to say that in my vanity and egoism, I would think that that would be the way to proceed. And I know deep down that the better answer is: Even having all the time in the world, it’s better to collaborate with your brothers and sisters. It’s ultimately the richest experience. But there’s a kind of intolerant economy that happens: “Just let me do the fucking thing myself.”
Matthew Weiner: And it’s wrong.
GQ: To feel that way?
Matthew Weiner: Yeah. What I find at this point is that the room generates story. But the actual writing and the consistency of it—in the end, I will probably have to do it myself. And I want to. And I think they want me to. I think it’s demoralizing, on the one hand, to not see a lot of your stuff shot, but I keep telling them, when I was [a writer and executive producer for] The Sopranos, nine times out of ten somebody would come up to me and say, “That line was so great.” And I’d say, “That’s David Chase.” It’s hard for writers to understand that when you sign off on an outline, they feel it’s finished. And you know it’s just a stab at it. Actually, I don’t think they could even work if they knew how unfinished you know it is.
Vince Gilligan: We work a little different, it sounds like. There are seven of us, total, counting myself. And we spend at least two weeks, sometimes three, on just the outline. Every detail we can think of, down to the color of the dress, is in the outline. That’s the heavy lifting. I liken it to a sequestered jury that never ends. The verdict is never announced; we’re just in there forever. When we finish breaking a story, we actually have this little ceremony where we write the number of the episode and we thumbtack it up, and everybody claps. It’s very sort of corny, but the understanding is that, at that point, if any one of us, including me, were to get hit by a train or come down with the flu or whatnot, any other of these writers in the room could deliver, could turn that into a screenplay.
GQ: David, your approach is more cryptic.
David Milch: Yeah. I think it’s more of an osmotic and less cognitive process. We knock stories around, and then we sort of give them out haphazardly. It’s much less of a coherent approach. What you’re hearing described in one way or another is an organism which is constantly transforming itself, which at one moment is one thing and at another moment is something absolutely other and different. Hospitality to that fluidity is what makes for a wonderful show-runner. The blessing—and we’ve all had the experience—is when you meet a writer who can do it, and you get this stupid look on your face…
Matthew Weiner: It’s like falling in love. Understand that we’re living in that world twenty-four hours a day. David Chase would always come in and say, “I think I fixed it. I was in the shower and it came to me.” And I’d think, “Why is he always in the shower?” Then I got this job, and I was like, “Oh, my God, you’re always thinking about it.” You get to the point where you’ve run through almost everything that could possibly happen, and then all of a sudden somebody will say something that you didn’t think of—
David Milch: —that’s totally different from what you thought.
Matthew Weiner: And you’re just like, “Wow! I love you!”
David Milch: And quite literally that’s the truth. That’s the definition of love, that going out in spirit to a separate and other soul and being received similarly. It’s a lot of fun.
GQ: What’s the opposite? What makes a toxic writers’ room?
Matthew Weiner: People fighting for control. People fighting for Daddy’s attention. I write about it all the time. We have that scene in the episode “The Suitcase” with Don yelling at Peggy for complaining about not getting enough credit. I tried to explain to people that I was both of those people.
GQ: I thought that scene was specifically about the question of putting your name on so many Mad Men scripts, which has been somewhat controversial.
Matthew Weiner: I don’t know why anyone would want their name on something that they didn’t write. I don’t want to discredit somebody for taking the first swing at something, because that’s huge. Even if I throw out the whole thing, they’ve helped me. But over 80 percent of it is rewriting and I’m going to put my name on it. If I keep more than 20 percent of your script, I’ll leave your name alone. Basically, it’s a question of ego. I can’t stomach the idea of someone not knowing that I was involved in it. For the well-being of my daily interaction with the people I work with, I felt it best not to have to watch somebody go up and get an award for something I had written every word of. I’m not Cyrano de Bergerac.
GQ: The counterargument is that your involvement is implied by the show-runner position.
Matthew Weiner: I am breaking with tradition on some level. And immediately I’m defensive. David did do it on The Sopranos. He did it less than I do, but he did do it. And I felt it was better for our relationship. I tell my staff that my response wasn’t “Well, he’s just going to rewrite what I do anyway.” It was “I’m going to write a script that he will not be able to change.” And I got there.
GQ: Do you other guys put your names on scripts you’ve done extensive rewrites on?
Vince Gilligan: Not typically.
David Milch: Not typically.
Matthew Weiner: They’re classier than me.
Vince Gilligan: But that said, every single thing Matt just said is bulletproof. I guess I don’t do it because Chris Carter didn’t do it, and I learned everything I know from working with Chris on The X-Files. But I recall times when I would rewrite someone else’s script and I would miss out on some money but, worse, know that the world wasn’t going to know the work I’d done. If you’re going to stick to tradition and suffer in silence and it’s going to give you an early heart attack, why do it? So I’m impressed. Hats off to you, Matt.
David Milch: I think it can be a sign of mental health. Ego suppression can be an act of ostentation.
Matthew Weiner: Well, I’m very healthy.
GQ: Do we all agree that The Sopranos was an important moment in the transformation of TV?
Vince Gilligan: Oh, absolutely. Breaking Bad couldn’t exist without The Sopranos.
Matthew Weiner: I feel like David Chase died for my sins. Do you know how many decisions were based on some meeting when he was on Northern Exposure or The Rockford Files or some show you never heard of that he worked on for three years? Somebody saying to him, “You can’t do that,” and him saying, “Why not?” And them saying, “Because you can’t.” We were exorcising those demons. He wouldn’t do a walk-and-talk, which is two characters being covered in one shot, talking. He wouldn’t do that, because it was something NBCUniversal used to do to save money. Sometimes you’d be at this amazing location with a strip club on one side, an abattoir on the other—spectacular. You’d say, “Can’t they just walk down the highway?” And he’d say [sarcastic], “Sure. Let’s just lay some track, walk backwards, and we can get out of here by four.” I knew it was some network executive he was punching in the face thirty years later.
Vince Gilligan: Now, I think The Sopranos couldn’t have existed without Hill Street Blues.
GQ: Did you sense that, David, when you were working on network shows like Hill Street or NYPD Blue? Was there the same kind of excitement you feel now?
David Milch: There was excitement, but it was not articulate. It was like everyone felt as if he or she had been caught doing something wrong.
Matthew Weiner: The antihero, even though it’s such a big part of the American tradition, was something people thought no one wanted in their living room. They’d go to the movies and watch Gene Hackman in The French Connection, but when they got home they didn’t want to watch Sipowicz.
GQ: And yet that antihero character—the charismatic monster—has become the signature of this TV revolution: Don Draper, Walter White, Al Swearengen, to name three. What changed?
David Milch: The whole idea of going out to a movie was really a secularized version of going to church. And there was a certain expectation you brought to a movie which, as we’ve said, has taken all this time to be demystified. Commercials were once TV’s version of the church. Which is to say, you couldn’t offend the sponsor, therefore certain values had to be underscored in the subject matter. Now, with the move to cable, we’re in the process of exploring the anti-versions of all these forms.
Matthew Weiner: I think we’ve always been a subversive culture—poking at authority, being a gangster, breaking the rules. That’s Antihero America. At the same time, there’s a lot of guilt and shame that goes along with our basically criminal mentality. Wasn’t that a lot of what Deadwood was about? “Why do I get the land? Because I was here first!” So when a character like Tony Soprano comes along, you’re saying, “This is a real criminal. I wish I could be that way. I really do.” And at the same time: “I hope something bad happens to him, because it’s probably wrong to feel that way.”
GQ: But why so many antiheroes now? Other than the fact that you can get away with it on cable nowadays?
Matthew Weiner: We like to see it that way and pat ourselves on the back, but Twelve Angry Men was made for TV. Requiem for a Heavyweight, Marty, Patterns, The Bachelor Party, all were made for television. I mean, The Twilight Zone! There’s nothing that’s ever been more counterculture than The Twilight Zone. It was literally saying, every week, America is fucked-up.
GQ: But Rod Serling had the form of science fiction as a kind of Trojan horse—just like tits and violence on The Sopranos, or the genre of the Western, or pretty 1960s clothes…
David Milch: It works, that Trojan horse shit. It really works.
GQ: At the same time, a show like Luck doesn’t seem to need that recognizable genre. Nor did Breaking Bad. Are we in a new phase?
Vince Gilligan: Going back to film: Because it was, as David said, a kind of church, a special place, it carried with it all sorts of conventions. If there was going to be a horror film, it was advertised as a horror film. You knew what your expectations were going to be.
David Milch: Now all the conventions have been hollowed out and revealed as barren. And that’s ultimately the transposition of “the story” from the church of film to an entirely different world in which the story declares itself on its own terms, with no preexisting expectations. In fact, the expectations are there to be deconstructed.
GQ: The other side of having a strong central characters is that you end up, on some level, sharing authorship with an actor. Does that cause problems?
Vince Gilligan: I’m so very lucky to be working with Bryan Cranston, an actor who is not afraid to look bad. We all have stories of actors who will come to you and say, “Gee, this scene you’ve written here, don’t you think my character would have more dialogue?” They’ll give you artist pretenses, but the nut of it is “My character is too much of a shit here.” Or “He’s too weak here.” Bryan isn’t afraid to be photographed in his underpants time and time again. That’s a pretty good physicalization of his fearlessness.
David Milch: As soon as you say “My character…” you don’t have to finish that sentence. You’re wrong.
GQ: How important is it that you get to work in short seasons of ten, twelve, or thirteen episodes?
Matthew Weiner: There are two people here who would do twenty-two episodes a year! I did that in comedy, never drama, and you know what it meant? It meant there was a minimum of seven crappy ones a year.
Vince Gilligan: I’ve forgotten how you’d do that. I say to my network friends all the time, “I have the greatest respect for what you’re doing,” because the grind…it’s inhuman. And I was never the boss on a big network show. I don’t think I could have done it.
GQ: So, David, how did you do it?
David Milch: Well, loaded.
GQ: Were you constantly frustrated, creatively?
David Milch: No, because you’re so hungry. You’ve been out in the cold so long.
Matthew Weiner: Got to eat with both hands.
David Milch: That’s right. But I guess I’ve written 300 scripts, and I couldn’t write the first 250 again. No way. It’s a younger man’s game.
Vince Gilligan: I agree. I couldn’t go back and do the seven years on The X-Files.
GQ: Why has the particular structure of around thirteen one-hour episodes turned out to be so good for telling these kinds of stories?
Matthew Weiner: I was really curious about that. This is just amateur archaeology, but I think it’s related to British series, which were often six episodes long, plus a pilot. So the first series would be seven, and the second would be six.
Vince Gilligan: Thirteen’s also one quarter of a year, right? Thirteen times four is fifty-two. That might have something to do with it.
GQ: I was wondering if there’s something more abstract, even mystical, about those numbers.
Matthew Weiner: I think you can cover a year in twelve or thirteen episodes. I break this all the time, but I try to make each one about a month apart.
David Milch: To the extent that the theme is what we learn or fail to learn over the passage of time, form and content inform each other. So twelve [Deadwood was three seasons of twelve episodes each], which is formally just an attribute of the calendar, becomes a thematic principle.
Matthew Weiner: I think plus or minus three is a gift. Thirds are great for storytelling: beginnings, middles, ends.
GQ: Does that throw off your storytelling metabolism?
Matthew Weiner: It’s an organic human thing. If we meet for a drink and you tell me what happened today, you’ll tell a story that goes like this [traces an arc in the air]: There will be a climax, and then we’ll talk about the ending and what it means. You try and fuck with that, but it’s still based on that shape. It’s like playing jazz.
David Milch: When Adam and Eve are in the garden, she says, “What are you gonna call that?” And he says, “A hippopotamus.” And she says, “Why?” “Because it looks like a hippopotamus.” We’ve integrated our expectations about form, so you think in the shape of twelve. You couldn’t say why or how.
Matthew Weiner: You cannot exaggerate the value of experience in storytelling and your gut feeling of what is a good story.
GQ: Vince, you have sixteen episodes to go in Breaking Bad‘s final season. Do you know your ending?
Vince Gilligan: We have a rough idea. I’m very fortunate, because most TV producers don’t have the luxury of knowing when their show is going to end. But in some sense, some small part of you wishes you had the choice denied you. If, at the end of season four, I had been told that forces beyond my control were ending my show, I would feel pretty good about the ending we had, and I’d be able to say, “Whoops. Not my call. We gave you the best we could, and hope you enjoyed what you saw.” Now there’s an element of “It’s really mine to fuck up.”
GQ: But you always had a certain arc in mind, right? You’ve said the project was always to see if you could convincingly turn a character “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.”
Vince Gilligan: In very general broad terms, we had a sense of Walter’s fate. But God is in the details. (I love that there’s two expressions: “God is in the details” and “The devil’s in the details.”) Anyway, when you do a show about a man who’s been diagnosed with cancer in the first episode, a very likely possible ending presents itself pretty readily. But the details of that ending are really where the art’s at, if there’s art to be found.
GQ: David, you didn’t get a chance to end Deadwood on your own terms. Or John from Cincinnati, for that matter. [Read David Milch’s thoughts on the premature cancellation of Luck.]
David Milch: You try to live your creative life in the way you would try to live your real life. Which is, if it turned out to be your last day, you wouldn’t be ashamed of the way you finished up. In the case of Deadwood, I had enough time to mourn but not enough time to really shape the material towards a conclusion. But if you go back and look at the concluding episode, there is a provisional sense of an ending there. Some series end halfway through and just don’t know it. So it’s not a question that I allow myself to linger over.
GQ: Do any of you have a Great Lost Series that you wish had gotten made or had more of a chance?
Matthew Weiner: I loved Andy Richter Controls the Universe. When I got there as a writer, it was D.O.A. They were like, “They’re letting us make a few more, and they’re giving us a chance.” Really? They put us on Sunday night against The Sopranos in December. I don’t think they’re interested in us succeeding.
David Milch: It was a sacrificial lamb.
Matthew Weiner: Yeah, exactly. Why not just run a Magic Bullet commercial?
Vince Gilligan: I had this show called The Lone Gunmen. It was an X-Files spin-off, and it only lasted thirteen episodes. I remember the writing room on King of the Hill put in a joke where one of the characters is wearing a T-shirt saying “Bring Back The Lone Gunmen.” And you know the kind of lead time animation has. They animated it before the show had even aired!
Matthew Weiner: That’s a vote of confidence.
Vince Gilligan: Well, you didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that one coming, I guess. But that was a fun damn job. I enjoyed the hell out of that. I love Breaking Bad, but it’s tough being in Walter White’s head twenty-four hours a day. It was much more fun—not as satisfying, perhaps, but more fun—to be in the heads of these goofy Don Quixote types, always tilting at windmills.
Matthew Weiner: Thirteen times it was more fun. See how you would have felt if it had stayed on.
GQ: Where are we going from here? Is this window to do good work on TV going to stay open?
Matthew Weiner: My kids don’t know the difference between what they’re watching that’s TV and what’s a movie. It’s all on the same-size screen.
Vince Gilligan: There’s also movement toward nonwriting producers coming in and running shows.
Matthew Weiner: Part of that is making the people with the money feel more secure, because those of us who are artistic aren’t to be trusted with budgets and so forth.
Vince Gilligan: I’ll tell you what I worry about. Being a student of TV history, I know that in the early days, advertisers had much more of an impact on what you could do and what you couldn’t do. Now with TiVo, with DVRs, consumers of TV are skipping the very thing that allows TV to exist in the first place—at least in commercial television, which accounts for most of it. It makes me think a new paradigm is in the offing—a new paradigm that in fact is the oldest paradigm—in which each TV show is individually sponsored.
David Milch: The avatar of that is product placement.
Vince Gilligan: I worry that that will potentially put the kibosh on a lot of edgy, fun storytelling.
David Milch: We’re in such a state of fluidity in terms of the changing of the market and form that in five years something absolutely different is gonna be going on. Hey, did we win any money?
Vince Gilligan: I have a couple of winning tickets, actually.
David Milch: I say we give them all to the waitress. I’m telling you, in five years this conversation is going to seem childish.
Immensely pleased and flattered to learn that “The King of Pop-Up,” my profile of Ludo Lefebvre, was included in Best Food Writing 2012.
THERE IS, NATURALLY, A TRUCK. Just as surely as there are the tattoos, the facial hair, the coif, the Twitter feed, the reality-TV show, the silent pop pop pop of the bloggers’ cell-phone cameras. He who has these—all the signs and signifiers that have replaced whisk and toque as emblems of modern chefdom—is 40-year-old Ludovic Lefebvre, a classically trained, preternaturally handsome Burgundian who’s become Los Angeles’s most talked-about cook. What he doesn’t have is a restaurant. Instead, Lefebvre and his wife, partner, and brand manager, Krissy, run a series of wildly popular pop-ups called LudoBites, which occupy, hermit-crab-like, the off-hour shells of other eateries—first in obscure corners of L.A. and, more recently, across the United States for the Sundance Channel’s Ludo Bites America, debuting July 18. Lefebvre is a kind of walking, talking, preening manifestation of all the blessings and damnations, transcendence and silliness, that mark this moment in American dining.
In any other context, Gram & Papa’s, a soup-and-sandwich spot in L.A.’s Garment District, would hardly suggest culinary adventure.
Nevertheless, that’s where the Lefebvres staged the fifth iteration of LudoBites—LudoBites 5.0—for six weeks last summer. By day, this area downtown was crowded with shoppers at rows of fabric stores and zipper distributors; after dark, it was all but deserted—save, in those weeks, for questing foodies dubiously checking their GPS units.
The production of high-end food in low-end and otherwise improbable settings is, of course, part of the pop-up phenomenon. But that doesn’t mean a chef raised in the great kitchens of Paris won’t grumble. On this morning, the Lefebvres arrived with Ludo in full temperamental-artist mode. The immediate object of his pique: the state of the walk-in fridge.
“It’s like fucking Baghdad in there,” he muttered to Mike Ilic, Gram & Papa’s owner.
Behind the register, Ilic raised his eyebrows. He had invited the Lefebvres to assume weeknight squatter rights in exchange for a fee, a cut of the profits, and the publicity; it was obviously a sufficient trade-off to make him tolerant of his tenant’s moods.
“They cleaned up Baghdad, Ludo,” he said. “It’s gonna have to be like Afghanistan.”
“Every morning, the same routine,” said Krissy, rolling her eyes. She was sitting at a nearby table, looking over that night’s reservation list. Upstairs, in a tiny storage area, it wasn’t difficult to tell which shelves belonged to Gram & Papa’s and which to LudoBites: On one side, ketchup and La Choy Chinese noodles; on the other, kombu seaweed, industrial-grade gelatin, star anise. Nearby was a pile of Lefebvre’s niftier gadgets: an immersion circulator, which looks like the mating of a heating coil and a medical device, and a Gastrovac, which first cooks ingredients in a vacuum and then reimpregnates them with flavor the moment the seal is broken.
In the kitchen, Lefebvre’s skeleton staff was assembling. One sous-chef was cutting perfect rectangles of pork belly, uniform and creamy as frosted sheet cake. Lefebvre runs his kitchen in a manner in keeping with his French education. That is, he yells. And the staff is expected to yell back. “I want the kitchen clean before I start!” he hollered now. “Use your fucking heads!”
“Yes, Chef!” came the chorus.
Lefebvre’s eye fell on a young cook named Joon Sung.
“Do we have dashi made?”
Lefebvre made a face that suggested it might be easier simply to end it all via Gastrovac right there. The dashi broth, infused with kombu, was for a dish he had woken up intent on adding to that night’s menu. It would act as a poaching liquid for oysters that would then be served with a froth of butter infused with the briny taste of their own smashed shells. All this he patiently explained to Sung.
“You understand, Joon?”
“Yes, Chef!” Sung thought it over for a moment.
“The oysters. They’ll be poached à la minute?”—meaning “to order.”
“Of course!” said Lefebvre. “Or else it’s no fun!”
He came out front, where Krissy was still at work, and wiped his forehead with a kitchen towel.
“This is my last LudoBites,” said Ludo.
“Nice try,” said Krissy.
They are a pretty couple, in an easily alliterative way: he Gallically goateed, she classically Californian (or blonde and buxom, if you prefer). With his pierced ears and arms covered in ink, Ludo could be an instructional diagram for the Metrosexual Pirate look that has dominated kitchens for the past decade. Both Lefebvres are camera-ready, and even before the Sundance show, both did time on reality TV: Ludo as a contestant, and designated villain, on Top Chef Masters, Krissy on a season of The Apprentice. (She subsequently posed for a Playboy cover.) They met, in an oft-told story, when Krissy, at the time an intellectual-property attorney, was dining at L’Orangerie, the late old-guard French restaurant that was Ludo’s first stop in Los Angeles; she thought the amuse-bouche was a flirtatious gift just for her. In addition to running the front of the house, she anticipates his moods, minds his malapropisms (“I cook through instant.” “Instinct, honey”), and acts as adoring PR agent. That the adoration is obviously genuine and reciprocated isn’t inconsistent with a parallel impression she gives: that of a business-savvy cat with a particularly telegenic bird in its teeth.
Not that star looks are necessarily good for a man’s culinary cred—just as a Playboy spread doesn’t result in instant respect for one’s litigation skills. This is especially true in Los Angeles, where the local eatocracy has an uneasy relationship with the rules of celebrity that dominate the rest of town. Woe to the big-name chef who arrives from somewhere else and is perceived to worship at the altar of Scene over that of Food. Take San Francisco’s Michael Mina, whose L.A. outpost, XIV, a barn on the Sunset Strip, might as well be Olive Garden for all its reputation among local foodies. Likewise, Rick Bayless’s Red O, which has been pummeled with unequaled ferocity since opening last year. Bayless’s crime, in part, was daring to offer “authentic” Mexican food to a town that thinks it pretty well knows its Mexican. But one got the feeling that the bigger sin was the fedora-wearing valets.
Angelenos are, of course, susceptible to the status-seeking inanity that infects eaters everywhere. But the logic of the moment demands that their culinary heroes—Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal and Son of a Gun; Sang Yoon of Father’s Office and Lukshon—be immune to the usual course of Hollywood power, that they be in some sense of the People. Lefebvre walks this line closely. A crucial element of LudoBites is its reservations system—a characteristically savvy confluence of idealism and show business. There is no phone number, just a Web site that opens at a random hour posted on Twitter. When LudoBites 5.0 was announced, 3,000 hopeful diners crashed the page within six minutes.
There have been missteps on the path to fame and credibility. The most egregious is Lefebvre’s cookbook, Crave: The Feast of the Five Senses, published by Judith Regan in 2005. On the cover, Ludo stares intensely into the camera, holding forth a split pomegranate and a spoon. He looks like nothing so much as Chris Gaines, Garth Brooks’s short-lived Goth alter ego. Most infamously, there is the Fish Photo, in which a bare-chested Lefebvre, dressed in tight jeans, stands shin-deep in the surf, a large, glittering striped bass in each hand.
Among other things, the image presented logical problems: Were we to believe he’d caught the fish with his bare hands? If so: Both simultaneously? Or was he so used to catching fish in this manner that it was hardly worth heading in with just one? If not: Had he brought the fish with him? Or had he found them floating there already dead?—a notion that detracts substantially from the overall sexiness of the picture.
More to the point: It made him look like a world-class douche.
Both Lefebvres now express appropriate embarrassment at the Fish Photo. Krissy recalls that it could have been worse; Regan, she says, had already demanded three new photo shoots, each “sexier” than the last.
“She wanted him to be rolling around in the sand with the fish,” Krissy says.
These are the kinds of semiotic negotiations that have become de rigueur in the era of the celebrity chef. It helps that Ludo’s path has taken him to both extremes. He arrived in L.A. in 1996 as starstruck as any would-be actor getting off the bus. “I had never tasted sushi! I discovered jalapeños! Green tea! It was crazy,” he says. Paradoxically, he had a more difficult time exploring such wonders at conservative L’Orangerie than he would have back in Paris, where he had worked under acclaimed and innovative chefs including Alain Passard and Pierre Gagnaire. “I was a very typical French chef. No tattoos. Short hair. Perfect for the army,” he says.
That changed when Joe Pytka, the mercurial commercial director and impresario, decided to fire the beloved chef at his restaurant Bastide and installed Lefebvre in his place. Up went the sleeves, revealing a chiaroscuro of Hawaiian girls, dragons, and Sanskrit he had secretly accumulated, and out came the liquid nitrogen, gelatins, and other accoutrements of molecular gastronomy. Some critics were smitten by dishes like chicken crusted with popcorn and foie gras piña colada, others less so—L.A. Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila wrote, “I feel as if I’ve been mugged,” and busted Bastide down from four stars to one. (She now says that two stars may have been more appropriate, but stands by the rest of the review: “He was trying interesting things, but it just wasn’t very good.”)
“She was so mean,” Ludo says, clearly still angry. “I decided I won’t cook for critics anymore.”
That decision was one half of the epiphany that led to LudoBites; the other—not to cook for investors, either—came soon after. That’s when Lefebvre was lured to Las Vegas to open a 300-seat restaurant at the Palazzo casino. Named Lavo, it came with a “Mediterranean” menu (which, oddly, included a Reuben-stuffed knish “slider”) already set in stone; Lefebvre wasn’t even allowed to add nightly specials.
” ‘Money,’ ” he says sadly, when asked what the investors could possibly have said to lure him into such a creative disaster. “They said, ‘Money.’ I used to go home at night and cry.”
So what’s a tortured-artist chef to do? Why, throw off the yoke of the restaurant altogether! LudoBites 1.0 and 2.0 took place in 2007 and 2009 at BreadBar, a bakery on the border of Beverly Hills, and were immediate sensations. Iteration 3.0 was staged at a cavernous Culver City gallery-café called Royal/T. Krissy set up a professional light box at one end of the room, the better for the stream of bloggers to photograph each dish. “If they were taking pictures anyway, why not make them as beautiful as possible?” she says.
Next came the LudoTruck, a thirty-foot-long beauty wrapped in lurid red, decorated with roosters and called the Big Red Coq. In keeping with the lowbrow obsession of the moment, it serves fried chicken—albeit fried chicken whose recipe begins, “Day One.” (There are three in all.) When the LudoTruck debuted at the L.A. Street Food Fest, a three-hour line developed, surprising even the Lefebvres. “There’s nothing three-hours-and-$5 good,” Krissy says.
Since, the couple set up shop for six weeks in an Italian restaurant in Sherman Oaks, and LudoBites 7.0 is expected to happen this summer. The Lefebvres spent the intervening time filming Ludo Bites America, for which Ludo took on barbecue in North Carolina, chilies in Santa Fe, and, quite literally, buffalo outside Denver: Krissy tweeted a photo of the chef sinking his teeth into a freshly killed bison’s heart.
The pop-up life has its drawbacks. Lefebvre never gets to work in a kitchen he’s designed for his own needs. He has trouble keeping quality staff at either the front or the back of the house. He can’t build lasting relationships with butchers, fishmongers, and the like.
In return? No permit issues. No dishwasher and refrigerator maintenance. No electric bills, oil-disposal problems, breakage costs, laundry bills, venting- regulation compliance—all the bullshit that comes along with running a permanent restaurant. And of course, there’s the freedom to cook whatever his heart desires, to treat each night as a piece of harrowing theater, a magnificent fire that only he can extinguish.
At Gram & Papa’s, it was almost curtain time. French rap played over the sound system as Krissy’s team of young waitresses set tables. Taking his position in the open kitchen, Lefebvre carefully laid out his tools: a silver quenelle spoon, a tiny grater with bamboo brush, a Sharpie. At the head of this little shrine, he lit a Mexican prayer candle.
“It’s a miracle, what we do every day, working in these conditions. You see that?” he said, pointing to a beat-up four-burner stove. “That’s magical.”
It is magical. It could also, one worries, become a dodge—a perpetual deflection of the question of what someone with this much talent might do with the kitchen and staff of his dreams. Krissy says as much, remembering the thinking that went into LudoBites 1.0: “Just using ‘Bites’ diminished expectations. It could never be a failure, because it had a beginning and an end.”
Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer-winning dean of L.A. food writing and one of Lefebvre’s earliest and most consistent champions, likens LudoBites to a series of first records, with all the visceral energy and rough edges first records entail. Eventually, though, you want your favorite band to risk it all with a double-length theme album.
Put another way, the question is this: Is it possible to be a great chef without a great restaurant? The kind of place, as Animal’s Jon Shook memorably puts it, where “you go back after it’s been open ten years and it’s still fuck-your-mouth good”? The question matters, because at the very heart of celebrity chefdom there lies a problem that may prove irreconcilably hostile to the future of the restaurant: The essence of the job—turning out the same dish over and over again, night after night—is deeply, profoundly dull. Some chefs who have made the radical shift from anonymous laborers to acclaimed artists assuage their boredom by leaving the kitchen altogether, traveling the world, expanding their brands. But there will always be those addicted to the particular adrenaline rush of being behind the stove. With them at the helm, we may soon be living in a pop-up world.
The doors opened, and the first seating poured in. At one table, each of five diners held cameras or camera phones. One customer presented Lefebvre with a bundle of locally picked Spanish garlic. “Tomorrow we have garlic soup,” the chef announced. “With escargots.”
Orders came in. Dishes flowed out: a cheese “cupcake” frosted with chicken liver and foie gras; a feathery-smooth potato mousseline capping, shepherd’s-pie style, a barely poached egg and a warm bed of chorizo; a version of a classic French frisée aux lardons reimagined as a tower of greens teetering in a bowl of smooth, rich goat-cheese soup. (When I tried the dish at dinner with Gold, I nervously approached it with knife and fork. “It’s hard to cut soup,” the critic deadpanned.) All but the oyster dish, which nobody had yet plated or tasted—leaving no assurance that Lefebvre’s morning inspiration would even work.
One by one, the tickets for oysters piled up. Lefebvre hovered over the simmering dashi, watching as a test run poached. Krissy looked on in a state of bemused panic. Finally, Lefebvre lifted two of the oysters from the water and pried them open, revealing the pair of perfectly swollen iridescent bubbles within. He swiveled toward the counter where Joon Sung was supposed to be assembling the dishes.
“Why haven’t you fucking prepped for the oysters?”
Something in Sung snapped: “Because I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do, Chef!”
The kitchen came to a halt. The chef spun slowly in his clogs. Sung waited, blinking. Then Lefebvre grinned, clapped his cook on the shoulder, and screamed right back:
“Well, neither do I!”
I’M SITTING in the dining room at La Grenouille, staring at the least fashionable, most defiantly uncool dish in all of New York: the sole grillée, sauce moutarde. For one thing, it’s classically French, a Platonic example of a school of cooking that uses the most complicated technique to arrive back at a transcendent version of simplicity—like traveling the wrong way around the globe to get to the house next door. It consists of merely four elements on a white plate: a silky fillet of Dover sole, a tidy pile of haricots verts tossed with butter and shallots, a wedge of lemon, and a slick of mustard sauce, just sharp enough to highlight the sweet flesh of the fish.
The case for its squareness mounts from there: It is not a “small plate.” It does not contain pork belly. The sole—imported from the north of France—boasts the carbon footprint of a yeti. The menu declines to explain how it was caught or whether it was allowed to meet its demise with dignity. The dining room it is served in is located uptown, not downtown (Brooklyn might as well be Pluto); decorated with profusions of fresh flowers, not taxidermy; and suffused by a soundtrack of murmured conversation, not Blonde on Blonde at top volume. In short, the whole thing is totally wrong. And yet completely wonderful.
Don’t misunderstand me: I love pork belly. I think Blonde on Blonde is one of the high points of 20th-century culture. Like seemingly everybody else, I spend a scary amount of my free time chasing down Javanese street food or heirloom radishes or noodles made of edible glass or whatever trend rumbles down the pipeline.
My companion and I sit side by side on one of the plush, ruby-red banquettes lining the main dining room. We’re both facing outward, as though we’re at the theater—which, in a way, we are. This may be the best-lit room in New York, a golden, glowing lacquered box. The flowers not only adorn each table but are also displayed in 11 towering bouquets that act as living, blooming structural elements, dividing and defining the rectangular room. How impressive are they? Put it this way: There has never been a La Grenouille cookbook, but there is The Flowers of La Grenouille.
The players on this stage are an unparalleled cast of the type that can afford a three-course prix fixe that starts at $98, before wine or any number of supplements. There are Brioni blazers and Hermès ties. There are diamonds the size of acorns. There are silver-haired men in the sunset of their years, accompanied by women who…are not. On the faces of male and female customers alike, there is a gallery of what New Yorkers delicately refer to as “work.” There’s a woman a few tables away who looks just like Carolina Herrera—and turns out to be Carolina Herrera. Next to us are three regulars, who are involved in a debate about the best limo service for the five-hour trip between Gstaad and Lake Como. “It’s just like going to the Hamptons!” one of the men says.
Meanwhile, a bewildering array of staff circulates, tending to the customers with balletic precision: dark-suited captains and white-jacketed waiters, the maître d’ and the dining room manager, the army of busboys and the other, random men whose function is not entirely clear. They’re not simply trafficking dinners from the kitchen, but preparing and finishing and presenting them, in flashes of flame and cutlery, on gleaming, wheeled silver carts—the way waiters once did routinely, generations before the advent of “the chef’s table.”
Indeed, everything here recalls an era when fine dining in America was defined by New York restaurants such as Le Pavillon and La Caravelle, Lutèce and La Côte Basque. Of these white-tablecloth temples to French cuisine, only La Grenouille remains. And that makes my simple, square sole grillée among the most exciting, exotic meals I’ve had in years.
The man whose heartfelt, anachronistic convictions make La Grenouille what it is can also be seen on the floor, weaving among his staff in a well-tailored dark suit. Charles Masson is the one who arranges the flowers and the seating chart, trains the staff, and designs the menu, not only deciding its contents but also painting the seasonal watercolors that adorn its pages. Masson’s parents opened La Grenouille, at 3 East 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan, in 1962. His father, also named Charles, had been among the elite staff chosen by the legendary Henri Soulé for his restaurant at the French pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair—a place so rightfully certain of its role in introducing la cuisine to the States that it was known simply as “the French restaurant.” The elder Masson later rose to maître d’hôtel at Soulé’s permanent restaurant, Le Pavillon. Soulé, in his Parisian youth, had waited on Georges Auguste Escoffier himself at the Hôtel Mirabeau. This makes the younger Charles, who took over La Grenouille at age 19 upon his father’s death in 1975, the equivalent of a ballplayer with direct ties to Babe Ruth.
Masson takes the pedigree seriously. In the era of the hero chef, he’s a passionate defender of the notion that the position of maître d’hôtel—one who knows his establishment from stove to dining room, coat check to bus station—is the highest of restaurant callings. In the kitchen, he knows every recipe and technique intimately; on the floor, he lives up to Soulé’s own description of the job as “essentially a diplomat…also an actor, a stage manager, a lawyer, a magician, a mediator.”
If he falls short in any way it’s in summoning Soulé’s notorious imperiousness. At first impression, Masson seems intimidatingly buttoned-down: He is a native New Yorker but has a clipped, tight-lipped way of speaking that a friend of mine described as “Swiss boarding school.” His own mother likes to joke that he was born in a suit. And yet Masson can’t hide the genuine pleasure he gets from his job. Once, after I’d enjoyed an especially long, delicious dinner—creamy sweetbreads scented with rosemary, followed by a snow-white truffled breast of chicken with fava beans and a Grand Marnier soufflé—Masson was seeing me out the door and looked so happy that, before I knew what was happening, I found myself giving him a hug.
If you walk into La Grenouille on a Monday morning, you will find Masson arranging his flowers for the week. The normally orderly dining room looks like a botanical crime scene: banquettes and floors draped with tarps, tables covered with waiting vases, everything buried beneath a forest of leaves and stems and clippings. Even Masson is out of his suit—a sight as disconcerting as glimpsing Mickey Mouse with his head off at Disney World. He strides back and forth amidst the foliage he picked out early that morning, in Manhattan’s flower district, adding a wispy stalk of purple delphinium here, a Creamsicle-colored lily there. The bouquets, when done, will be displayed in clear glass vases, an act of mad floral hubris that necessitates that the water be siphoned with a rubber tube and replaced each morning.
More than simple decoration, flowers are a kind of guiding metaphor for Masson. “In France, your flowers come from the same garden as your fruits and vegetables,” he says, sounding like Alice Waters by way of Provence. “It’s all part of the same harmonious thing.” When lilacs and peonies give way to sunflowers and hydrangeas, he knows it is time to switch from the spring to the summer menu.
Masson’s highest term of praise, the word he uses to describe the goal of every decision that goes into running La Grenouille, is harmony. And he maintains an almost mystical faith that the secret of harmony is rooted in the country of his parents’ birth. The staff, from busboys to captains, is still expected to speak at least some French. And you would be hard pressed to find an ingredient on the menu that wasn’t used in Escoffier’s time.
“I’ve had people say a dish like the quenelles de brochet lyonnaise”—pillowy, football-shaped soufflés of pike and egg napped with a sauce almost exactly the same color—”is boring. ‘Why don’t you dress them up?’ Well, I could do that, but it wouldn’t make any sense,” he says. “Most fusion is just confusion. You are not going to find cilantro at La Grenouille.”
One of the greatest enemies of harmony, Masson believes, more pernicious even than foreign herbs, is the cult of the celebrity chef. “When you make a restaurant all about one person, you’re putting one person’s ego ahead of the pleasure of your customers,” he says. No cook’s name appears at the bottom of his menu, and Masson does not bestow such titles as executive chef. Nor will you ever see a cook schmoozing with clients. “Remember,” says Masson, “it used to be that a maître d’hôtel started in the kitchen and was eventually allowed into the dining room.”
La Grenouille, of course, does have a chef. Two, actually: Noah Metnick, 35, and Colin Whiddon, 30, who have split the title since being promoted from sous-chefs last year. Both are on duty, prepping for dinner service, on the afternoon when I’m invited into the inner sanctum. On the first floor of the three-tiered kitchen, Metnick is at the range, stirring a pot filled with chicken stock and a mirepoix of leeks, mushrooms, garlic, and thyme. Reduced and spiked with cream, this will become a shape-shifting sauce suprême. One floor above, pastry chef Matt Lambie is buttering the bottom and sides of countless ramekins. These will soon be used for the restaurant’s beloved soufflés, which are available in a rainbow of flavors, from pistachio to caramel to passion fruit. And on the third floor, Whiddon trims fat pink lobes of foie gras, his butter knife expertly scraping the livers like lumps of wet clay. During dinner, the steep stairways between floors will become avenues of barely contained chaos; a neatly printed label above them reads “No Jumping.”
To cook at La Grenouille requires faithful adherence to the classics, but also the ability to improvise. This is not a restaurant where you’re expected to abide by a “no substitutions” policy. The overwhelming majority of the clientele are regulars—some dine there four or five times a week—and they’re accustomed to having special orders honored. As dinner service starts, so do the requests.
“Chef, can you make the turbot without the leeks?”
“Yes,” says Metnick, head down, working the line.
Five minutes later: “Chef, can I have the agnolotti without dairy?”
“I can do it without butter, but not without dairy. They’re made with ricotta.”
“Chef, I have a five-year-old with my party.”
The chef sighs just perceptibly and reaches for a box of De Cecco linguine on which is written “Pasta 4 Baby.”
To whatever extent Masson has kept his chefs in their traditional place, he has also restored waiters to theirs. “Just carrying food to the table, that’s not a career,” he says. “That’s a messenger.” Dishes like frog’s legs, which are cut into three-inch segments, soaked in milk, and then sautéed in fresh butter and garlic, get a final, theatrical deglazing in the dining room. (They would make perfect Super Bowl food, especially if followed, as they are at table, with a gleaming silver finger bowl.) The waiters must also be able to expertly dismantle a roast chicken grand-mère, fillet a sole using only a fish fork and a flat sauce spoon, slice kidneys for rognons de veau moutardier into uniform strips, like meaty little mushrooms, and then flambé them with Cognac and mustard in a whoosh of old-school flame.
As dinner service reaches its peak around 8:00 p.m., the activity backstage intensifies. Handwritten orders flow in, dishes flow out. One table of five orders five soles grillées; there will apparently be no passing of plates in that group. Out beneath the flowers in the dining room, the murmur of Champagne-enhanced conversation slowly rises in volume. Masson patrols the perimeter with the slightest skip in his step. It is obvious there is no place on earth he’d rather be—even France.
It’s clear at these moments that La Grenouille is not a museum to a dead culture, but a living restaurant, one that reminds us of all the other things a restaurant can be besides a temple of innovative food: a place to watch your date’s eyes grow wide, a place to take your mom on her birthday, a place to sit at the bar with a friend who’s down in the dumps, splitting a roast chicken and a bottle of red wine and hashing it out, a clubhouse, a canteen, a fantasy, a vacation from all the less well tended corners of the world.
As for the trends it continues to buck, Masson remains unperturbed. “I read a statistic recently that the average restaurant’s life span is four years,” he says, with just the hint of a smile. “What does that tell you?”
Before moving to New Orleans, there were several things I never thought I’d do. One is beg for a fifty-cent string of beads as though it were made up of so many tiny lifesaving kidneys for my own tiny dying children. Another is buy a hat. One of those things, obviously, required me to get pretty drunk first. Not the beads.
FOR ME, shopping is an activity singularly able to tap insecurities and raise existential questions: “Am I the kind of man who can get away with a tie this skinny?” morphs quickly into “What does a tie mean?” “Do I even care about clothes?” “What’s the matter with me?” “Who am I?” The result: sweaty palms, pounding heart, general despair followed by either a hasty, bad decision, or a rip-cord-pulling abandonment of mission.
If only there were some magical elixir that lowered inhibitions, made you feel more attractive, loosened the wallet…
I’ve made it a practice to shop if not three sheets to the wind, then at least one and a half. It works for much the same reason alcohol helps facilitate sex: Both benefit from an enhanced, expansive sense of what your body is capable of. And both, if you’re lucky, reward the leap of faith. It’s just that sometimes the leap requires a buzz.
Thankfully, clothes—unlike venereal diseases—can be returned. More than once I’ve woken with items I never should’ve taken home. On the other hand, witness a pair of dark brown handmade wingtips brought back to my place after three or four Pimm’s Cups. They make me unaccountably happy every time I see them in their individual felt shoe bags. I call the left one Hawk and the right one Falcon.
As for the question of choosing a hat: It was a battlefield on which I planned to remain a conscientious objector. Until, that is, I came to New Orleans, which rivals Jerusalem in the variety and significance of its headwear taxonomy, from the porkpies of cool trombonists on Frenchmen Street to the Panamas worn by Parrotheads on Bourbon. Anyone who has ever experienced the New Orleans sun understands why. It wasn’t long before I realized I’d have to take a stand.
Luckily, the Crescent City has two venerable institutions: (1) the 117-year-old St. Charles Avenue hat shop, Meyer the Hatter, and (2) wise bartenders. I stopped first at Molly’s-on-Toulouse to see J Dagney, a woman with whom I’ve made it a practice to consult on all matters of importance, up to and including health, romance, grammar, gumbo seasoning, and the conversion of nautical knots into miles per hour. “Your face is oval, so you don’t want a very large brim,” she said. She looked me in the eye. “When you put the right hat on, it will speak to you.” Then she poured me an Irish Car Bomb.
Thus fortified, I continued on to meet Chris Hannah, the cocktail wizard from Arnaud’s French 75 Bar and my adviser for the day. Hannah had invented a cocktail for the occasion, a refreshing draft of muddled celery, gin, and bitter soda that had me struggling to negotiate Meyer’s front door. Chris Meyer, the fifth generation to work there, patiently began pulling specimens from long glass cases. Watching in the mirror, I was transformed into plantation owner, barbershop-quartet tenor, Hasidic Jew on Caribbean vacation, ska fisherman. I listened to each. Nothing. “I think I need a drink,” Hannah muttered as I waffled. Finally a mottled brown narrow-brimmed straw fedora landed on my head. I squinted at my reflection: Did I look good? My gin goggles thought so. Was it speaking to me? I strained to hear, pretty sure it was.
It wasn’t. At least not the next morning, when the hat suddenly seemed insufferably hip, more costume than apparel. I made the walk of shame back to Meyer, where they were kind enough to exchange it for a light straw hat with a wider brim—a lid that somehow threads that narrow divide between hipster and Jimmy Bufett. It’s a man’s hat. A sober man’s hat. After all, this time I’d had only one Bloody Mary.
JET LAG is a funny thing. It plays tricks on the mind. For instance, right now I could swear that I’m crammed into a tiny karaoke room on an upper floor of a building somewhere in Tokyo. The narrow table is covered end to end with empty bottles of Asahi beer and Zima, jugs of whiskey and vodka, buckets of ice, huge clear-plastic bags of luridly colored Japanese candy. There are about ten of us in here, packed thigh to thigh on the U-shaped banquette, under a ceiling of peeling geometrically patterned wallpaper that seems to strobe in the fluorescent light. That’s not including the trio of waitresses in tiny fur-trimmed Mrs. Santa Claus dresses, peering in curiously from the door. All this is more or less plausible. The strange part is what we’re all staring at, to all appearances a surrealist pop-culture mash-up, bizarre even by the standards of a country known for bizarreness: the comedian and actor Aziz Ansari (of Parks and Recreation), the musician James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem), and the chef David Chang (of Momofuku), in suits, arm in arm, belting out A-Ha’s “Take On Me.”
But that can’t be right. I mean, who drinks Zima?
It began with a photo: three men, snapped from the waist up. On the left, Chang, rosy cheeked and grinning. On the right, Murphy, gray bearded and Zen, raising one hand in a gesture of mahalo. Between them, a head shorter, with one arm on each of the others’ shoulders, Ansari, mouth and eyes wide open in his trademark “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?” gape. The three were at The Breslin, at New York’s Ace Hotel, for the afterparty of an Arcade Fire show; none were especially sober. Ansari tweeted the photo with a message: “David Chang, @lcdsoundsystem, and myself want to go to Tokyo and eat food. Can some magazine/Travel Channel pay.”
To be clear: We are not accustomed, here at GQ, to acting as a celebrity Make-A-Wish Foundation. But something about this tweet captured our attention. The grouping was unlikely, yet it made an instant kind of cosmic sense, as though you had been waiting for the picture long before it appeared. The Venn diagram of their fame might have a small overlap—I found that most people knew two of the three—but that intersection was a particular pocket of smart, inventive, forward-looking cool. The destination, too, made a certain intuitive sense, Tokyo being both a fun-house mirror of pop-culture iconography and a place where generations of Western seekers have gone to feel both reverently awed and gloriously disoriented.
And so, a week before Christmas, I found Chang in a business-class lounge at JFK. He informed me that for our upcoming flight to Narita, where we would meet up with Ansari and Murphy, he’d just downed a cocktail of pills, timed to kick in upon takeoff. “I just hope we’re not delayed,” he said, “or you’re gonna have to carry me to the plane.”
That was not half as frightening as the next thing he told me, which was that he was afraid: Ansari, not yet 30, is a coiled wire of comedic energy and late-night stamina; Murphy may be 40, but he’s also a rock star, with a rock star’s ability to go till dawn. Chang was not sure he could hang. This was worrisome, because Chang is a chef, not a profession known for teetotaling. Later he would tell me matter-of-factly that his preferred cure for a really bad hangover was to check into the nearest emergency room for intravenous rehydration. If Chang was concerned about what was to come, I was terrified.
In varying states of bleariness—Ansari had arrived from Los Angeles, Murphy from Shanghai—we converged fourteen hours later in the vaulted lobby of the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel, a sleek monolith with whisper-soft elevators hurtling forty stories up, toward vertiginous views of the surrounding neighborhood of Shibuya. By name and appearance, the place belonged in Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City.
We trundled into a taxi, handed the white-gloved driver a paper scrawled with indecipherable directions by our concierge, and went shooting down a long neon-lit avenue toward Setagaya Ward. Even if you’re accustomed to a big city like New York, it’s hard not to get overwhelmed by Tokyo’s mile after mile of intensely vertical density. It’s a sprawl of Times Squares, punctuated by multiple city centers—Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza. Every room in the city feels like an adaptation to that crushing crowdedness, an attempt to carve out spaces that are either tiny and nichelike, hidden out of sight, or exclusive in more traditional ways—like our destination that night, a members-only dining club, Yakumo Saryo.
We turned into a hilly neighborhood of smaller shops and houses. Several blocks later, a waiter in a flowing white apron suddenly appeared, apparitionlike, in the headlights. He waved the car over, and we followed him down the street and through a gate marked only with a hanging flag bearing a symbol that looked like a cross between a crab and an inverted fleur-de-lis.
Inside we were ushered into a rectangular room seemingly constructed entirely from perfectly sanded, unfinished blond wood—a space where Basho and whoever founded Ikea might get lost in each other’s eyes. A silent chef labored over small, precise dishes in the style of the traditional, elaborate Japanese tea ceremony, or kaiseki. Each arrived at the table accompanied by an explanatory piece of rice paper the size of a fortune-cookie fortune.
I looked around the table. Ansari’s passion for food had been the force that brought this triumvirate together. When confronted with an especially delicious bite of something, he would go into sensory-deprivation mode, bowing his head, closing his eyes, and folding his arms inward as though shutting down, the better to focus on the taste. Sometimes he would even start to shake a little.
Murphy and Chang knew each other only slightly. But both had found themselves, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, responsible for large, sprawling businesses—Chang the ever expanding empire of Momofuku restaurants, which have been at the vanguard of casual/fine dining in New York, Murphy both the perpetually touring LCD Soundsystem and his independent label, DFA Records. Both wore their more obsessive, perfectionist neuroses on their sleeves, though Murphy projected the hard-won calm of a handsome, aging Irish barfly, while Chang, a decade younger, could seem as tightly wound as a taiko drum. Their kinship on this trip seemed instant.
“My dad would say like two things a year to me, and they’d be mean,” said Murphy as we tucked into a delicate handkerchief of raw sea bream.
“That was very Korean of him,” said Chang.
Our mission, we decided over lumps of red and green tea-flavored mochi ice cream that resembled unfired balls of clay, was to seek out those moments in which Japan manages, in its sublime Japaneseness, to exceed even one’s most exaggerated expectations. Before dinner was over, I’d already had two: (1) We’d eaten something truly transcendent: a Kyoto daikon, beveled and lathed into a shape like a piece of smooth industrial machinery, simmered in seaweed broth until achieving the uniform texture of custard and served in a simple white bowl atop a clear pool of bonito dashi. And (2) I’d been momentarily startled by the mouth of the men’s-room toilet swinging open to greet me, in what I believe was a gesture of goodwill rather than menace. Everything you’ve heard about Japanese toilets is true: I did not have time to push every button on this commode’s war-room-size operations panel, but I’m pretty sure one activated a mechanical arm that would reach up and gently palpate your bladder while playing soft, cooing lullabies. From then on, I would have a new shorthand to describe the kind of experience we were after: “Toilet Moments.”
We were standing on the sidewalk, blinking in the winter sun, heatedly debating where to eat lunch. Deciding on ramen hardly settled the matter, ramen taxonomy—chicken versus pork broth, miso versus soy-sauce base, and so on—being one of the more serious matters to occupy Japanophiles. Years before, Chang had spent a not-very-happy, mostly penurious nine months working in Tokyo and slurping widely in noodle shops around town. Now he proposed a small chain called Ramen Jiro.
“What style is it?” Murphy asked.
“It’s its own thing,” Chang said. “It’s gnarly.”
“Can you be more specific?”
The morning’s shopping expedition may have contributed to our crankiness. We’d originally contacted the company N. Hoolywood about procuring matching suits for all of us. As its name would indicate, N. Hoolywood, and head designer Daisuke Obana, is intent on taking weird fragments of American culture and refracting them back, transformed into something just slightly off and utterly Japanese. Past collections had been inspired by such sources as Detroit auto workers, 1940s gangster mug shots, and a collection of Yosemite photos by Ansel Adams. One would cry Zoolander, if arriving in Tokyo didn’t mean surrendering one’s notion of the border between parody and reality at the airport.
It took us a half hour to find N. Hooly-wood’s main showroom, in a nearly unmarked house a block or two off of the shopping boulevard known as Omotesando Dori. Once we were inside, the staff had embarrassedly explained that while they could accommodate Ansari’s Japanese-size frame, there was nothing in their sample wardrobes, perhaps in the entire city, that could fit the rest of our grotesquely elongated and bloated bodies. So we hung around, and watched Ansari bounce around in taunting, giddy bliss, tended to personally by Obana himself. At one point, the two disappeared upstairs to a storage area, and we could hear them laughing hysterically. Following the sound, we discovered Ansari clowning with a mannequin he’d found in a corner: white skinned, naked, potbellied, and sexless as a Ken doll. I had the uncomfortable suspicion that it was meant to represent what the rest of us looked like with our clothes off.
Finally, lunch: The nearest Jiro was staffed by unsmiling men who lifted their eyes only to glare at our party. Every seat was taken, but the place was silent except for the sound of slurping. We shuffled in line toward a machine that dispensed the tickets you handed to the chefs. There was a bewildering array of choices. Ansari, clad in his new brown suit, was the first to reach the front. “I’m scared,” he whispered. “Just close your eyes and push a button,” said Chang.
Eventually we were all seated in front of steaming bowls of thick, almost gravylike broth. Pieces of cabbage and ragged chunks of pork protruded here and there, like half-submerged bog creatures. The taste bore the looks out—deep, swampy, and warming to the core. After one sip, we all straightened and looked at each other, goofy smiles slippery with grease.
The meal demanded a nap. Then it was off to Bar High Five, owned by Hidetsugu Ueno, who has become the foremost ambassador of the Japanese cocktail movement. Stepping into the closet-sized space on the fourth floor of a building in Ginza, the ritzy shopping district, was like arriving on an advanced planet whose sole sacred text was a 1960s American bar manual—like stepping at once back and forward in time. Ueno wore a magnificent pompadour and worked from strange bottles of the kind you see gathering dust under American bars—sloe gin and blended whiskeys and odd liqueurs. His technique was astonishing: When he poured, it was in a thin stream from high above the golden wood bar, somehow perfectly filling each glass to just its meniscus point.
“Well, he does do this every day,” Ansari reasoned.
“I pee every day,” said Chang. “But sometimes I miss.”
As we drank in reverent silence, I could see Murphy blinking hard and sweating. The gnarliness of the ramen, it seemed, was wreaking gnarly havoc on his insides. With apologies, he dashed back to the hotel.
In retrospect, this may have been a canny strategic bailout in the face of the cultural awkwardness on which we were about to embark. At one point, while brainstorming which Toilet Moments we’d seek out, Chang had offhandedly said, “Find Mrs. Chang.” Since we were in the wish-granting business, it seemed obvious what to do: Organize a gokon.
I will not pretend, even after having been through one, to fully understand what a gokon is. It had been explained to us as a ritualized group blind date—usually organized by a couple either hesitant to have a first date on their own or worried about their bachelor and bachelorette friends. Each brings an even number of men and women to meet and talk. Whether the expectation was to facilitate hookups, long-term relationships, or just pleasant company was left unclear.
We arrived early at Tachimichiya—a basement izakaya, or beer hall, decorated with punk-rock posters—in the neighborhood of Daikanyama. In preparation for small talk, I’d downloaded a conversational-Japanese app to my iPhone, though it seemed to specialize solely in phrases along the lines of “I like to paint and sketch” and “Do you like pizza?” We were awaiting the arrival of Tatsuya Mizuno, a journalist and apparent expert in arranging gokons. Where exactly that put him on the continuum between popular and pimp I could not quite pinpoint.
The door flew open and in walked Mizuno, followed by four women around 40, all in low-cut but otherwise demure dresses. At almost precisely the same moment, it dawned on the three of us that this was going to be as excruciating as any other blind date.
“I need to get drunk. Fast,” said Chang, reaching for a bottle of soju.
Mizuno ushered the ladies over. He wore a Vandyke and a brown leather blazer. His voice sounded like it was being dragged out through five feet of gravel, a low, drawn-out growl that lent even his most innocent sentences a leering dirtiness. I nicknamed him the Goat.
“Thees is Haruka, Kyoko, Chie, and Yumiko,” he growled as the women expertly slid in among us. Kyoko and Chie squeezed close on either side of Chang, who was on his third drink in as many minutes. “Now you ask each other questions,” the Goat said, making it sound like something that might well end in pregnancy. Chang suddenly took an inordinate amount of interest in a Ramones poster on the wall behind him. He poured another drink.
“You are on television?” one of the girls asked Ansari. He allowed that he was.
“What program would I know about?”
“Have you seen Friends?”
“Yes!” all the girls said simultaneously.
“I played Chandler,” said Ansari. “Indian Chandler.”
The girls looked confused.
“Let’s not talk about TV. Let’s talk about movies,” one said.
“Have you seen Pretty Woman?” asked Ansari.
The table filled up with plates: piles of sashimi, crisscrossed Jenga stacks of yakitori. The drinks kept flowing.
On my left was Yumiko. She wore a green drapey dress and had long hair that framed her oval face. Had she been to many gokons? I asked. Oh, yes, she said. And what did she do for a living?
“I’m a Buddhist monk,” she said earnestly.
“Okay,” I said. She also had a boyfriend. Who was a mixed-martial-arts fighter.
“But he’s not a champion yet,” she said, pulling up a picture on her phone.
“Looks a little small to me,” I said.
“Oh yes,” she said, kindly. “He is only six feet two inches.”
Across the table, Haruka, the shyest of the group, peered up at Ansari through her bangs. “I am also an actress,” she said in a tentative voice.
“Really? What do you do?”
“I am a model.” She dug in her purse, came up with her phone, and showed him a picture. He stared at the phone for a moment and then passed it without comment to me and Chang. Sure enough, there was Haruka, several years younger, soaking wet, wearing a tiny, clinging tank top that barely covered her large breasts. She was looking at the camera with what could only be described as “gokon eyes.”
We were silent. The girls giggled.
“Do you like pizza?” Ansari said.
Around midnight the girls excused themselves, but the Goat led us on. Outside it was pouring, sheets of cold rain washing down the street. Chang wanted to go back to the hotel, but we forced him into a cab back to central Shibuya—a district known, in the cosmology of the city, as loud, bright, young, and Westernized. We got out near an elevated train track and entered a street of a totally different scale: Nonbei Yokocho, “Drunkard’s Alley,” a dark, narrow circular alley of tiny bars that sprang up during the postwar occupation. Through the windows, draped with Christmas lights, we could see dry and cozy groups of two and three people, leaning close and laughing, successfully keeping the crush of the city at bay. The Goat seemed to know everybody and picked up friends as we walked, until there were ten of us ducking into a bar the size of a bathroom. A small bathroom. In a dollhouse. In Lilliput.
Chang said he was going to pee. Too late, we realized he’d given us the slip. One of the three regulars, older men whose space we’d suddenly invaded, went scurrying into the night. Another stuck around to tell Ansari, at great, repetitive length, that while Chinese were no good, Indians were fine by him, because they are clever.
“Give these guys wheeeskey,” growled the Goat. “Cheeeep wheeeskey.”
Suddenly Chang was back, having either discovered a second wind or failed to find his way out of the mazelike alley.
“You are the coolest man in the world,” Chang told the Goat, clasping him around the shoulder. They did a shot of Jägermeister.
Rain streamed down outside the open door. Impossibly, more people pressed into the bar, forcing some in the back to climb on chairs and squash themselves close to the ceiling. Chang insisted on buying a round of vodka shots, which was the last thing we needed at 3 A.M. No was not an option. “Kanpai!” he yelled, as Ansari and I artfully poured our glasses out on the floor. Chang eyed us suspiciously.
Eventually we spilled, like clowns from a Volkswagen, out into the alley. I stopped to tie my shoe, and when I looked up, everybody was gone. Stumbling around a corner, I saw Chang disappearing into another shoebox-sized bar, but when I followed, it was empty except for a couple talking with the bartender. I stood in the doorway, swaying confusedly, until the bartender pointed at a tiny staircase. I squeezed up and emerged inside a music box designed by a demented gay Austrian prince. It was a room entirely upholstered and painted in bordello red. Every inch of wall and ceiling was covered with dripping ornamentation: taxidermied antelope heads and crystal chandeliers and glowing glass bunches of grapes and gilt-framed oil paintings of zebras and lions and sad clowns.
Ansari was slumped on one of the red leather banquettes. Chang was sitting next to him, holding out a glass of whiskey.
“Kanpai, motherfuckers,” he said.
Too early the next morning, I was seated next to Murphy, staring dully at the barista at a coffee shop the musician had discovered near the Cerulean. The man shuffled slowly back and forth between a Bunsen burner and a glass tube that seemed to have been lifted from a nuclear-physics lab, administering the coffee with what, at that moment, seemed like criminally excessive attention. Having rested while we had our adventures in gokon Land, the rock star was much refreshed. “God,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s amazing the care he takes. So cool.”
Coffee was just one of a seemingly encyclopedic collection of Murphy’s obsessions and areas of expertise. He was wearing a gray suit he’d had custom made in Shanghai. He showed off the breast pocket, which had overlapping pockets for an iPhone and regular cell phone. It was his own design. I kept waiting for my coffee.
Murphy seemed to know about most things Japanese. He’d first come here around 2000 as a sound mixer for the Beastie Boys. This was a time, he said, when he would routinely take Ecstasy and simply walk the streets in a state of intensity and rage, and Tokyo must have provided the perfect level of assaultive sensory overload. As he mellowed, the city had become a regular stop on LCD Soundsystem’s relentless tour schedule, the perfect place for a man with a fetish for perfection and an omnivorous appetite.
Drop by painstaking drop dripped the coffee. Murphy watched, transfixed. I made a note to always get coffee before going out for coffee with James Murphy.
It was a day of Toilet Moments and dazed wanderings and an incessant soundtrack of synthesized holiday music:
• through Kappabashi, the crowded kitchen-supply district where Chang, looking like a dog thrown into a room filled with tennis balls, filled his bag with knives and other gadgets to be given as holiday gifts to friends and staff.
• to a lunch of tonkatsu, fried pork cutlets the size and shape of Mini Cooper hubcaps; Ansari begged Chang to spit in his food, so that he could preserve an appetite for dinner.
• into a video arcade—a multilevel orgasmatron of strobing lights, wild beeping, and screaming, cheering anthropomorphic cartoons that made Chuck E. Cheese’s look like a Christian Science reading room. Upstairs was a floor filled with photo-sticker booths screaming CUTE! and PARTY! and LOVE GIRLYS! in a riotous palette of fuchsia, peach, and kittycat.
• and into a booth with a control panel that allowed you to touch up your photos before printing. You could instantly Westernize each pair of eyes. “Oh no. That is the worst,” said Murphy as Chang was transformed into a startled geisha, Ansari a cartoon gopher. Chang took the electronic pen and scrawled Team Roundeye, with a little pink heart.
It was a day that an essential truth about Tokyo became newly, exhaustingly clear: You may start out smugly amused and amazed, noticing all the ways in which it steals, cracks, and reassembles Western culture. But ultimately you come to realize it is not about you; it has no need for you; you will never understand it and it will roll on whether or not you’re there to appreciate it. For an American—perhaps most for those in the American spotlight—this is a strange, exhilarating, wonderful thing.
By the time we reached dinner that night, at Nihonryori Ryugin, the restaurant of the prodigiously talented young chef Seiji Yamamoto, it has to be said that we were running a little ragged. Before we’d left, I’d come across Chang and Ansari in the Cerulean lobby, both sprawled out dozing in padded leather armchairs. Now we shuffled into a long dark hallway with a desk at the end, behind which sat a dubious and severe young woman with hair in a swept-up bun. She looked us up and down, spoke into a Secret Service–style earpiece, then reluctantly ushered us into the hushed dining room.
When Yamamoto opened Ryugin, he served wildly inventive dishes like burdock roots carved to look like wine corks and plates decorated with bar codes painted in squid ink. (Scanned with a phone, they led to an explanatory web page.) Lately—rumor had it in response to disapproving pressure from the Japanese culinary establishment—he’d reined in the more fanciful flights of his imagination in favor of more subdued, classical fare. We were at Ryugin at Chang’s urging. Working in Tokyo as a young man had left him with mixed feelings about the city at best, but he worshiped the discipline Japanese chefs brought to cooking in all vernaculars, high and low, East and West. Someday, he predicted, as labor laws and dreams of easy stardom made Western cooks soft and slow, all classical technique would reside in Japan. “It’s going to be like the Library of Alexandria here,” he said as we sipped champagne and dug into an appetizer of soft, buttery monkfish liver painted with miso.
It was a quiet meal. The trip was winding down. So was the year. And our mood might have been a premonition of how momentous 2011 would turn out to be for all. Murphy had decided to fold LCD Soundsystem, feeling that the band had grown too large for him to have a full life. “It’s not good for me anymore,” he said. “I like being successful. But I never expected that success would mean only being able to do one thing.” The farewell concert he went on to stage at Madison Square Garden in April felt like the end of a particular era of New York underground life—perhaps the last such era—a measure of which was the mournful panic the announcement set off in Murphy’s fans; the concert sold out within minutes.
Chang, too, talked about escape, in his case to Australia, where he’d been spending time working on a Sydney branch of Momofuku. New York had grown frustrating: He couldn’t actually cook in his restaurants, because diners insisted on taking his picture. “I’ve got all these great kitchens now, but I can’t work in any of them,” he said. And yet plenty more was already brewing. That coming summer, Chang would launch a new food journal, Lucky Peach, along with a companion iPad app. He’d take on an improbable featured-acting role—as a heroic bohemian artist-chef—on HBO’s Treme. He’d attend a state dinner at the White House. He’d have morphed into an unlikely King of All Media.
As for Ansari, the third season of Parks and Recreation would debut and finally move from the safe corner of “beloved but unwatched” to the glare of mainstream expectation. By the end of the year, it would generally be considered one of the best comedies on TV. For what it’s worth, I myself was only a few weeks away from putting all my belongings in storage and boarding a train to live in New Orleans after nearly twenty years in New York.
In short, we were four men on the cusp of Further Complications, and for the first time it began to feel that this trip was more than the product of simple gluttony or a social-media accident. Strange times lay ahead, stranger even than the lurid landscape in which, paradoxically, we were finding a moment of suspended peace before the storm.
The final courses arrived, seeming to encapsulate both poles of Japanese culture. First, humble sublime simplicity: a bowl of rice tossed with rough cubes of Wagyu beef, the melted fat from the meat just barely slicking each perfectly al dente grain. Then, gleaming futuristic fireworks: In front of each of us, waiters placed a plate on which sat a tiny perfect shining apple, as though it had been lifted directly from Snow White. Chang figured it out first: “It’s not an apple,” he murmured. He took his spoon and cracked the top of what was actually a thin shell of sugar. Inside was a deep-frozen thimbleful of powdered-apple ice cream. It sent off a glistening little puff, like fairy dust. We all were suddenly grinning.
Then someone said, “We should go do karaoke.”
I’m told that Zima, that strange clear drink so ridiculed Stateside, is actually quite popular in Japan—so much so that when MillerCoors discontinued American production of the malt beverage in 2008, it continued to be sold in the Land of the Rising Sun. This does nothing to diminish the shock we all feel when the elevator doors open and we are presented with a maintenance man wheeling a huge trough of ice and clear bottles.
“Zima!” cries Chang, eyes gone wide. He falls upon the shocked janitor, pries the top off a bottle, and downs it. “Better than Four Loko,” he declares, perhaps the least helpful tasting note ever issued by a renowned chef.
Once we cram into the room, having picked up some of Murphy’s friends from previous trips along the way, the other guys show off their own special powers, like some kind of ninja superteam: Whap! Power of Hyperkinetic Comedian! Ansari climbs up on a banquette and goes bouncing around on the upholstery, performing both parts of B.o.B and Bruno Mars’s “Nothin’ on You.” Zing! Power of Lead Singer! Murphy dials up Lou Rawls’s “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and launches in with a rich, rolling, buttery vocal that brings the room to a dead halt. The Mrs. Claus girls appear in the door as somebody dials up “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Ansari wanders into the room next door and sings the Backstreet Boys to the shocked party. Their group joins ours. Or maybe we end up in the hallway. More Zima. Candy spills out across the floor. Somebody dials up A-Ha, and Murphy, Ansari, and Chang join arms:
Take on me
(Take on me, echo the rest of us.)
Take me onnnn
I’ll be gone
In a day or two
Somehow it’s become 4 A.M. We roll out into the wet, shockingly empty streets, still singing, and try to orient ourselves home by the blinking roof lights of the Cerulean. What began with a pleading tweet from Ansari ends with a triumphant one: #WeDominatedTokyoKaraokeTonight.
Five hours later, Chang and I are back at Narita, spending our remaining yen on whatever we can find: bowls of ramen, katsu curry, bento boxes of premade sushi. It is Christmas Eve, and the terminal is mostly empty. As we walk down the boarding ramp, I can already feel the dreamscape of Tokyo falling away. Chang puts a pill in my hand; a twinkly-eyed male flight attendant with a beard and a Scandinavian accent takes my jacket and hands me a glass of champagne. I close my eyes, and when I reopen them we’re already on our final approach to JFK, coming down out of the clouds, back to the real world, banking in over the placid, gray winter sea.
For the June issue of GQ, I had a conversation with three of TV’s biggest brains—Vince Gilligan, David Milch and Matt Weiner. Meanwhile: In March, I sat down with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd.
My old, presumed-dead tale of embedding with the Texas Rib Rangers competition BBQ team has been anthologized (along with much other fine work) in Cornbread Nation 6: The Best of Southern Food Writing.
Pleased as ponzu to report that The Hangover: Part III won the 2012 James Beard award for Humor.
My look behind, and in front of, the scenes at the magnificent La Grenouille is in the January issue of Bon Appetit.